Why You’re Wrong: The Leafs Aren’t Better Because of Randy Carlyle
So last year, I wrote a lengthy piece debunking the myths surrounding Phil Kessel. You might remember it (if not, here’s a refresher). While it was my intent to make a regular series out of it, it’s kind of hard to have a built-in time commitment to regularly write 2,000+ word pieces, try as I might. That, and, I enjoyed the Kessel piece and the positive feedback from it that I was reluctant to do a sequel because, y’know, sequels suck. That said, should the time come where there was a topic that inspired me to resurrect this idea, I’d give it a try. That time has come now.
The prevailing media narrative of the Leafs’ unexpected success this season has been that a change in coaching has been the difference-maker. Randy Carlyle, they say, has instilled ‘tight defensive systems’ and made the Leafs ‘a tough team’ in order to build a winning team. To hear the media narrative, it’s a lovely story of a rag-tag collection of high-flying young guys coming together under a strong defensive coach we haven’t seen since Coach Orion took over the Mighty Ducks in D3. I mean, I don’t believe Carlyle holds practices consisting of his players literally picking up trash, but it may be close based on what I read in newspapers and stuff.
It’s a nice story, but the problem is that it’s a flaming load of bullshit. The Leafs are doing better in the standings, but the impact the coaching change has had on that improvement is pretty much minimal. In fact, maybe the team could be doing even better but for some of the poor personnel decisions being made by Carlyle himself. If you think that Carlyle’s ethos of ‘tight systems’ and ‘toughness’ are why the Leafs are better this year, this is….why you’re wrong.
Just to keep things organized, I’ll break this down into three parts:
Pictured: the Leafs best defenseman covering Jordan Staal.
(1) TIGHT SYSTEMS!!!!!1
Perhaps the biggest credit given to Carlyle where credit isn’t due is the notion that the Leafs have been playing a better defensive system this year than last year. Granted, I understand some of the rationale behind it; Ron Wilson seemed to favour an up-tempo, run-and-gun system reminiscent of the circa 2009 Washington Capitals where defense was a complete afterthought. And yes, the Ron Wilson Leafs were well-apprised at giving up some pretty awful breakaways and odd-man rushes that broke the back of this team.
That said, is that our standard of solid defensive play? Not giving up egregiously bad scoring chances to the opposing team? Honestly, if that’s all it took to make the playoffs, all but about 4-5 teams per year would be in playoff contention within the last three games of the season. If ‘I don’t think letting Jaromir Jagr get three fucking breakaways in a game is a very good idea’ is something you wish to put on your coaching resume, then you are hereby qualified to coach any team in the NHL, AHL, or ECHL! Congratulations!
I think the simplest way to dispel this idea is to show the single biggest statistical change with the Leafs between last season and this one. SPOILER ALERT: it has nothing to do with team defense.
2012-13 James Reimer: .919
2012-13 Ben Scrivens: .918
2011-12 Ben Scrivens: .903
2011-12 Jonas Gustavsson: .902
2011-12 James Reimer: .900
EVEN STRENGTH SAVE PERCENTAGE:
2012-13 James Reimer: .923
2012-13 Ben Scrivens: .921
2011-12 James Reimer: .918
2011-12 Ben Scrivens: .910
2011-12 Jonas Gustavsson: .904
TEAM ES GOALTENDING:
So, if you don’t want to read all that, the executive summary is this: our goaltending is better than last year because James Reimer is no longer concussed, Ben Scrivens has more experience in the NHL, and, as Torontonians do with most of their garbage, we sent Jonas Gustavsson down to Michigan.
B-b-b-ut, team defense, you say! Reimer and Scrivens are doing better because Carlyle has the team playing better defense! Well, yeah, that’d be true if it wasn’t completely false. This season, the Leafs are giving up 31.8 shots a game, whereas last year they gave up- wait for it- 30.8 a game! Last year, the Leafs average shot differential in for vs. against was -2.5; it would be -4.3 this season.They were outshot in 57% of their games last year versus 69% this year. The general point I’m getting at here is the Leafs give up more shots and are routinely outshot more than they were last season.
This goes beyond shots, too; if you look at the Leafs missed shots in addition to shots on goal (this would be called Fenwick, clearly named after the advanced stats crowd’s inability to name things in a remotely understandable way), they are directing 45% of the shots towards the net per game during close games, down from 47% last year. In the most basic terms, this means that for every 20 shots towards the goal, 11 of those can be expected to go to the Leafs opponents any given night. Doesn’t seem like much until you realize that it counts missed shots, and there are usually over 50 shots on goal in most NHL games. It is really not that good is the point that I’m getting at here. Randy Carlyle’s defensive strategies: 45% of the time, it works every time!
Look, I get it. Some of you don’t accept so-called ‘advanced’ stats; you think that once stats like PDO and Qualcomp get recognized as legitimate, next they’ll want the right to get married. WE JUST CAN’T HAVE THAT! A STATISTICAL UNION IS BETWEEN A PLUS AND A MINUS DAMMIT! And I understand that Corsi & Fenwick sounds more like a sleazy ambulance chaser law firm than hockey statistics. I hear your tireless refrains of ‘DO YOU EVEN WATCH THE GAME?’ even though all of us are watching the exact same fucking game, so I never really understand why that’s a thing.
To be fair, I’ll step away from those mean ol’ numbers and tell you what I see with my own eyeballs. Now, I don’t profess to be no big city hockey scout, but what I done see here is a team that gives up more chances than the other team, spends long periods of time hemmed in its own zone, comparably moreso than it can get sustained pressure in the attacking zone. Sure, they block more shots this year, but that’s only because they have the puck less and spend more time in their own zone that there are more pucks to block. You can ramble on all you want about ‘shot quality’ and such, but much like that’s what you see with your eyes, this is what I see with mine. And the numbers seem to back up what I see. QED, bitch.
Point is this: in virtually every team defense and possession stat, the Leafs are not discernibly better than last season, and perhaps slightly worse. The one area where they’ve become leaps and bounds better is team goaltending. The Leafs routinely get outshot, outpossessed, and spend more time in their own zone; this year, unlike the last seven, they finally have reliable goaltending that can get them out of trouble. I wouldn’t call that a defensive system.
Yeah, that’ll teach you to stop my star players’ shots, Mr. Goalie Man!
(2) TEAM TOUGHNESS!!!!1
Let’s say one day I think it’s going to rain, so I take my umbrella with me on my walk to work. It turns out the weather forecast was wrong, and it is completely sunny all day. So then, I begin to think that because I had my umbrella to protect me from all that rain, the rain never came. I then start bringing an umbrella with me to work every day, even when it’s 30 and sunny with absolutely no chance of rain, just because I am now under the belief that I need that umbrella to keep the rain from coming back. Hell, it may even rain some days here and there, but I don’t waver in my belief that the umbrella is preventing rain.
If this was my normal behaviour in real life, you’d probably think I should be fucking committed for being such a nutjob. Yet, people believe the equivalent of this when they still buy in to the concept that playing goons on the 4th line somehow protects our star players. The logic of many Carlyle proponents is that Orr and McLaren are the umbrellas that keep teams from raining down on Kessel or Kadri. And that’s just wrong.
First of all, I’m not sure how it’s even possible to *protect* a player you don’t even share the same ice with. This idea was borne out of Marty McSorley playing the role of bodyguard to Wayne Gretzky, but that completely neglects the fact McSorley spent a good chunk of a time on a line with Gretzky. I fail to see how a 4th line player will protect a 1st line player with his 3-5 minutes of ice time spent nowhere near said 1st liner. What’s more, they not only don’t play together, they seldom even play the same competition. If, theoretically, a guy goes after Kessel, chances are he plays on a line that the 4th line will never see. Most fights these 4th liners are having just happen to be against the other team’s 4th liners….who, by the way, aren’t going to see much time against our first line either! So, basically, fourth liners protect first liners they never play with from fourth liners they never play against. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.
So unless you plan to pull a ‘circa 2003 Darcy Tucker vs. the Ottawa Senators’ and kamikaze an entire fucking bench, the chances are that an enforcer is never going to do anything to protect a star player from someone taking liberties on him. The guys they fight will never see ice time against said star players unless the team is in 14th or 15th and hey that Nathan MacKinnon kid is looking pretty good so why the fuck not? It is circular logic at its finest.
The other issue is that with all the focus on what goons allegedly contribute, there is little talk amongst people about their negative contribution. Guys like Orr and McLaren can only do one thing, and that’s fight. They can’t play defense. They can’t skate at an NHL level. They’re the worst possession players on the team despite playing the easiest competition. Beyond a puck hilariously bouncing off McLaren’s skate or butt, they can’t score. I’m all for tough players who can fight so long as they can play hockey; Mark Fraser is a good example of this mold. Look at Wendel Clark, Darcy Tucker…hell, even Tie Domi was a useful checking line player who could chip in about 20 points a season (Orr and McLaren, in comparison, have career highs of six. SIX!). Those guys were/are tough as nails, but actually contribute other things to the team that, y’know, help it win games. Goons are pretty much a liability any time they’re *not* doing some staged fight to ‘build momentum’ or something.
You may think I come off anti-fighting here, but I’m not. I’m all for fighting, but staged fights are the worst. They don’t do anything for momentum, break up the game, and, honestly, they’re just boring. I loved it when Phaneuf fought Andrew Ladd because there was a reason for it; conversely, the 3853958th fight between Orr and [insert opposing team goon here] in the first 30 seconds of the game or after a goal is when I go grab another beer or make a snack. You can tell there’s no context or circumstance to it other than fighting for fighting’s sake; if that’s what you want to watch, then they have UFC for that. I really don’t see the point in playing players who have literally no other upside for the purpose of something that is completely useless and honestly pretty boring.
People conflate team toughness and goons as being the same thing, and they’re far from it. It is amusing when teams attempt to emulate the Boston Bruins but do it in all the wrong ways. Boston doesn’t give roster spots that otherwise would go to hockey players to Coke machines; they have tough guys who can play hockey, similar to the Pat Quinn mold of player embodied by the likes of Tucker, Gary Roberts, and Shayne Corson. If you want an apt Leaf comparison to the Bruins of today, it’s that (minus the Stanley Cup). Quinn would more often than not bench the goons on his roster. You remember Nathan Perrott? Didn’t think so. Carlyle, on the other hand, feels like playing two such players, thereby depriving the roster of people who can actually play hockey.
What’s worse about this is the bad effect it has on the rest of the team. They’re a liability when they play, but don’t play a lot because they’re a liability. Not only does this put more weight on the other three lines, but it’s effectively turned the Grabovski line into a pure shutdown line which is a waste of a 20-goal, 50-point talent. If you’re wondering why Grabovski hasn’t produced this year like he’s been expected to, it’s because he’s been stapled to the defensive zone. When your fourth line is pretty much a liability in its own end, you pretty much will have to rely too heavily on your strongest defensive line to do all the dirty work.
So yeah, toughness! Because of it, we effectively roll three lines and bench people who can actually play hockey for useless goons. But, MOAR FACEPUNCH! So there’s that.
Look at him with that bread. Way too many giveaways!
(3) Something something roster accountability something….
Imagine a player who was a solid puck-moving defenseman that put up 30 points in his rookie season. On top of that, he was one of the better possession defenseman on his team against moderate competition. Imagine that he is still an excellent possession player that creates more scoring chances than he gives up, and can get the puck out of the defensive zone. Now imagine that said player has spent most of his season either in the minors or benched for what is clearly inferior competition.
Well luckily, you don’t need to imagine. That player exists and his name is Jake Gardiner; and this is exactly what is happening to him this season! Randy Carlyle hockey, everyone!
Perhaps what has been the biggest clusterfuck this season has been management of our defense. Do you know how many games it took for the Leafs to finally stop playing AHL defensemen with Phaneuf and pair him with Carl Gunnarsson, which worked so well last year? 28 games. That’s more than half of this season. Regardless of how the rest of the year plays out, Randy Carlyle will have spent more than half of this season pairing Phaneuf with two guys that had a combined 2 games of NHL experience prior to this season. Even with Jake Gardiner back in the lineup, the largest number of games he’ll have played this season is 18, not even half the season. Yes, I am aware he was not 100% at the start of the season and could have used some conditioning in the AHL- some conditioning meaning about two or three games, not a goddamn month.
Again, I know how Carlyle proponents hate statistics or anything that doesn’t involve ‘watching the games’ (although most advanced stats are just quantifications of what you see during the game, but whatever), I’ll avoid that discussion. What I will say is that to increase your puck possession, shots on goal, and scoring chances, you need a good transition game. You need a guy who can get the puck out of the defensive zone and move it forward. Blocked shots are wonderful since, y’know, they’re not shots on goal, but they do nothing to change the Leafs’ chief issue: spending long amounts of time being hemmed in their own zone. Against New Jersey, Jake Gardiner made some stretch passes that were a thing of beauty and led to time in the offensive zone.
What the Leafs have needed for the better part of the season is a guy who can get the puck out of their zone and create chances in the other end. They’ve also needed a defensive-minded guy who can play tough minutes against the best players and complement Phaneuf in the process. What’s sad is they’ve literally had both these players all season in Gardiner and Gunnarsson. Meanwhile, Carlyle has one languish for more than half the season in the minors and press box, while Phaneuf had to play with a couple of bottom pair NHL/top pair AHL guys because reasons. I suppose if Randy Carlyle defense is racking up blocked shots while being hemmed in your own zone for 5 minutes, then having [insert star player] go through you like a TTC subway turnstile, then we’re on the right track. To his credit, Carlyle finally got this right….for apparently one game, before scratching Gardiner again for Ryan O’Byrne, because he’s good at hitting and blocking shots and stuff and things.
ADDENDUM: Addressing Some Other Stuff
These two things don’t really deserve much time on their own, but I hear them enough that I should bring them up:
(1) The Leafs are doing so well this year; stop being so negative!
Yeah, I don’t deny they’ve done well this season. In fact, I’m perfectly happy with it. The next time they clinch a playoff spot, be it this year, the next, or whenever, I will get drunk and listen to ‘Heave Away’ on repeat in my Kessel third jersey. For an entire day. I’m as stoked as you that this season has gone the way it has. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to be critical; being critical is not the same as being negative. There are a lot of positives on the team; in fact, when it comes to the likes of Phil Kessel and James Reimer, I have consistently been among their most ardent defenders in Leafs Nation. There are areas of the Leafs that require criticism and improvement; one is coaching. I criticise not out of blind negativity, but because I want to see this team succeed. A lot. Long-term.
What it comes down to is this: just because a team is winning doesn’t mean it’s above criticism. That’d be the logical equivalent of someone saying “well yeah, that guy blew up that school bus full of children, then murdered his wife and fed the remains to his dog; but he gives to charity and works at soup kitchens and shit. STOP FOCUSING ONLY ON THE NEGATIVE MAAAAAAN.”
(2) You don’t give Carlyle credit for anything! He’s, like, way better than Ron Wilson!
I find some people may not give Carlyle credit for anything, but I will say this much: he is an effective line matcher, and he has (along with personnel and goaltending) improved the penalty kill. There, see? I said something nice about Randy Carlyle’s coaching! Do I get a cookie now?
While much smarter people with a better handle of numbers and more time on their hands have discussed this, my two cents are this: in most categories, Randy Carlyle has been a lateral move at best for Ron Wilson. The areas where he has been an improvement over Wilson (e.g. bad defensive lapses causing breakaways, fronting/two-handed sticks on the PK, not being a complete dick to Nazem Kadri) are so obvious that they really aren’t much of an accomplishment. Seriously, I think a six-year old could scrawl out a basic diagram of a penalty kill in crayon, and, so long as it didn’t involve two hands on the stick, could probably do better than any of the teams Ron Wilson had here.
One final thing: remember how we all wanted to fire Wilson in late 2010? You may recall; it was a dark time. People were throwing their breakfasts on the ice and stuff. Yeah, well, suddenly we didn’t want to anymore for a real long time, and it was over a year before he was fired. What exactly happened at the end of that 2010-11 season that probably saved his job again, oh, I can’t remembe-….oh right. JAMES REIMER SAVED HIS MOTHAFUCKIN JOB, THAT’S WHAT.
When James Reimer turned around the Leafs 2010-11 season in 37 spectacular starts, we all just kinda forgot about Wilson being a terrible coach. Then the next year, Reimer got concussed, things went to shit, and all of a sudden, we remembered Wilson was a terrible coach. Would anyone argue he magically became a great coach from January-April 2011? No, it was goaltending!
Bottom line is this: as it was then, goaltending is winning games. Not coaching, goaltending. If Randy Carlyle suddenly got Gustavsson-level players between the pipes, you’d think he was a stark raving lunatic, too.
WHY YOU’RE WRONG:
The Leafs are in playoff position because they have solid goaltending and their best roster in about six years. All coaching has contributed to that is implementing a system of getting badly outshot and outpossessed, all while making some questionable personnel decisions, including largely icing a fourth line that can’t do much in the way of hockey because of a false premise.
Yes, that style of play is good enough to make the playoffs in a 48-game season. What about 82 games? And if they do make it again, then what? Maybe the Leafs are a perennial first round exit, or maybe they win a round here and there. But, there are serious fundamental flaws persisting that, without a change down the road, will keep the Leafs from ever being a Cup contender. A lot more of those flaws certainly fall on the shoulders of the coach than the upsides do.